Metadata (data structure standards)

Introduction to metadata standards for museums

Museums use metadata extensively to manage and document their collections and to share information about their collections. Metadata can be defined as "structured data about data." The most obvious example in the museum context is the museum catalogue record (structured data about an object in the museum's collection).

Museums use metadata standards to assist them with collections documentation, management and resource discovery. Metadata standards generally have the following objectives:

  • enhancing information retrieval (particularly, automated retrieval)
  • promoting consistency within and between databases
  • ensuring that important information is recorded
  • improving the security of collections
  • accounting for museum collections
  • enabling the collection and knowledge about the collection to be shared and used
  • facilitating exchange of information between databases
  • facilitating the migration of data to new systems

These metadata standards outline the units of information that need to be recorded in order to properly document a collection (materials, artist, origin, etc.) and/or the processes that collections and objects undergo (such as loans, conservation treatments or exhibitions). Some of them also include rules and conventions for data entry (data content standards) and terminology sources (data value or vocabulary standards).

Metadata standards usually define:

  • a limited number of elements used to describe a resource,
  • the name and meaning of each element and
  • rules for the use of each element (for example, whether a controlled vocabulary is used with the element).

Museums use metadata for activities such as:

  • Documenting collections (data about the object's materials, dates, creator, etc.)
  • Managing collections (information about rights, access, use, location control, etc.)
  • Resource discovery (information used to find and identify digital or physical resources)
  • Establishing structure within or among resources (for viewing and using the metadata)
  • Preservation (data about condition of objects or preservation of digital resources, etc.)

In addition to metadata about their physical collections, museums use metadata to document, manage, use and preserve their digital resources, such as:

  • Images and other multimedia files which document their physical collections
  • Digital collections (digital art, digital archival materials, etc.)

Metadata issues can become very complex as "surrogates" of the information object are produced – various versions of images (for example, for web display vs. publication), copies or reproductions of originals and new versions of documents all have associated (and interrelated) metadata. Each of these versions or copies may have associated dates, use restrictions, associated people and other metadata that must be managed. There are various levels of granularity of metadata. For example, there can be interrelated metadata about:

  • Individual objects (physical or digital objects) in a museum's collection
  • artists, geographical locations and other information that is linked with objects in the museum's collection
  • sub-sets of the museum's collection
  • the museum's collection as a whole ("collection-level description")
  • an exhibit (physical or virtual)

Metadata can be stored separately from the information object, or can be embedded within the information object.

  • In the case of physical museum objects, the "metadata" would be stored separately, in a database.
  • For digital images and other multimedia files, some metadata may be stored in a database, while other metadata may be stored as part of the multimedia file during the digitization process.
  • For websites, metadata is often embedded in the HTML header at the top of the page; search engines sometimes use this embedded metadata to index the site.

Metadata standards for museum collections documentation

Many different types of metadata standards are available for use by museums. Metadata standards help museums to define the types of information to record about their collections and processes and to structure this information. For example, a museum metadata standard may specify the units of information needed to properly document a collection for security purposes and provide precise definitions for each unit of information. It will also explain how the various units of information relate to one another. It may also sometimes provide guidance on how the data are to be recorded (proper date formats, standards for person names, etc.)

Some metadata standards (such as Dublin Core) are very general and can be used for any type of collection or resource; others have been developed for specific museum collection types (biological collections, digital media collections, etc.) or for specific purposes (for example, collection-level description or object identification). Important metadata standards for museum collections management and documentation include:

Management and documentation of humanities collections

The following metadata standards have been developed for museums with humanities collections (historical, ethnological, art collections, etc.)

  • CHIN data dictionaries

    The Canadian Heritage Information Network's (CHIN) data dictionaries for the humanities and natural sciences have proven to be valuable reference tools for the management of museum and gallery collections information. A data dictionary defines all the categories or types of information in a database. The CHIN data dictionaries are not a data structure for use in a collections management system, but they can be used as the basis for such a structure. They can be used by a wide range of museums to help them to identify their institution's information needs and standardize their documentation. Each data field in the CHIN data dictionaries is described by a field label, a mnemonic and a name. Fields include a definition, entry rules, related fields, a data type, examples, a discipline, authority lists, a source and other information. The CHIN data dictionaries are used as the standard for Canadian institutions that contribute collections data to CHIN's Artefacts Canada, as guidelines for institutions which are developing or modifying a collections management system, and to promote the consistent recording of information by cataloguers or to provide users of collections databases with search strategies.

    Go to "CHIN data dictionaries"

  • Spectrum

    Created by Collections Trust, Spectrum is a guide to "good practice for museum documentation, established in partnership with the museum community. It contains procedures for documenting objects and the processes they undergo, as well as identifying and describing the information which needs to be recorded to support the procedures." As such, it is both a metadata standard for museum collections documentation and a procedural standard. It includes information on the minimum UK standard for museum documentation. The primary Spectrum procedures, which refer to 9 of the 21 procedures, are considered essential for managing collections effectively and making them accessible. Spectrum is a well-respected standard internationally, and it is increasingly used as the basis for international interchange of museum data. An XML DTD has been produced for Spectrum, which serves as a system-neutral interchange format for museum data that is based on Spectrum. CHIN collaborated with Collections Trust in 2019 to offer a French version on the Collections Trust website.

    Go to "Spectrum"

  • International Guidelines for Museum Object Information: The CIDOC Information Categories, 1995

    Developed by the International Committee for Documentation (CIDOC) of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Guidelines include information categories for collections management as well as object description. The Guidelines make recommendations for syntax or format and controlled vocabularies. The CHIN Humanities Data Dictionary was among many documents consulted in the creation of the CIDOC Guidelines. The CIDOC Guidelines are recommended as the basis for an international standard, as the basis for new national standards if there are no current standards in a country, and as an intermediary when comparing (mapping between) existing museum information standards. An object-oriented model called the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model (or CIDOC CRM) based on the CIDOC Guidelines has been developed to facilitate interchange of museum information.

    Go to "International Guidelines for Museum Object Information: The CIDOC Information Categories, 1995" (PDF version, 329 KB)

  • Documenting Your Collections – Info-Muse Network Documentation Guide

    The Info-Muse Network documentation system is based on museum practices in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. It was developed in close collaboration with various bodies and museums in Quebec and the rest of Canada and with many experts from the different scientific validation committees for the tools designed by the Network. The standards proposed by CHIN since the 1970s served as the starting point for developing the system, meaning that it is in line with the main national and international standards for documenting museum collections.

    Go to "Documenting Your Collections – Info-Muse Network Documentation Guide"

  • Comment gérer vos collections? Le guide de gestion du Réseau Info-Muse – Deuxième édition

    This guide developed by the Réseau Info-Muse of the Société des musées québécois (SMQ) includes a description of museum processes such as acquisition, loans in and out and deaccessioning, as well as the fields required to document these processes. Includes fields for the documentation of photographic reproductions, digital images and rights. Available in French only. This document is currently out of print, but it may be available through a library or bookstore.

    Go to "Comment gérer vos collections? Le guide de gestion du Réseau Info-Muse – Deuxième edition"

  • Introduction to Metadata, 3rd edition

    Published by the Standards Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust and edited by Murtha Baca, this publication provides an overview of metadata and related issues. Available in English and Spanish.

    Go to "Introduction to Metadata, 3rd edition"

Management and documentation of art collections, visual resources or architecture

The following metadata standards are recommended for museums with art and visual collections. They are similar to the standards for humanities collections (above), but with a narrower focus.

  • Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA)

    The CDWA is a product of the Art Information Task Force (AITF) and funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust. The Categories describe the content of art databases by articulating a conceptual framework for describing and accessing information about objects and images. They identify vocabulary resources and descriptive practices that will make information residing in diverse systems both more compatible and more accessible. They also provide a framework to which existing art information systems can be mapped and upon which new systems can be developed. The Categories advise the use of controlled vocabularies, authorities and consistent formatting of certain information to ensure efficient end-user retrieval. (Description taken from the website.) Available in English only.

    Go to "Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA)"

  • VRA Core 4.0

    Created by the Visual Resources Association (VRA) Data Standards Committee, the VRA Core Categories are an extension of certain portions of the Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA). Whereas CDWA is comprehensive and includes all elements needed to describe museum objects, VRA Core takes a sub-set of CDWA and extends these elements for the description of images documenting works of visual culture, especially architecture and site-specific works. VRA Core was originally based on CDWA, but more recent versions have been influenced by Dublin Core. There are 17 Core categories, but these core elements can be expanded as needed. VRA Core 4.0 works together with the Cataloguing Cultural Objects (CCO) content standard and provides an XML encoding. The VRA Core Categories are available in English only.

    Go to "VRA Core 4.0"

  • Le catalogage des estampes – Capsule documentaire no 1

    Developed by the Société des musées québécois (SMQ), this document offers guidelines for cataloguing prints. Available in French only.

    Go to "Le catalogage des estampes - Capsule documentaire no 1"(PDF format)(35.1 KB)

  • A Guide to the Description of Architectural Drawings

    Guidelines, conventions and standards for describing architectural drawings and documents, with examples and recommendations for authority files and controlled vocabularies. (Description taken from the website.) Available in English only.

    Go to "A Guide to the Description of Architectural Drawings"

Management and documentation of digital art and variable media art

Media art or digital art (including Internet art, installations, software art, conceptual art, performance art, etc.) is increasingly collected by museums, yet the traditional forms of museum documentation and preservation are not always effective. Procedural guidelines and documentation standards for these art forms are rapidly developing.

  • The Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections

    The Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections is aimed primarily at people who manage new media art collections, such as registrars, collection archivists and museum curators. This guide will also prove useful to the extended community of creators, researchers, presenters and collectors. The Cataloguing Structure Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage (DOCAM) Project sought to answer the questions and meet the needs of practitioners responsible for describing, explaining, exhibiting and documenting works of art. This guide presents the methodology used, the tools developed and the results obtained to provide these practitioners with sufficient knowledge to soundly manage, conserve and exhibit new media artworks. Available in English and French.

    Go to "The Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections"

  • The DOCAM Documentation Model

    The DOCAM Documentation Model provides a framework for organizing the documentation relating to a media artwork. Documentation throughout the lifecycle of the artwork is supported, including "the work's documents, producers, lifecycle steps, successive iterations, and components," as well as the links among these elements. Available in English and French.

    Go to "The DOCAM Documentation Model"

  • Matters in Media Art: Guidelines for the care of media artworks

    This website provides guidelines for care of time-based media works of art, such as video, film, audio and computer-based installations. It is a project of an international consortium of curators, conservators, registrars and media technical managers at major art institutions. The resource includes two main sections for dealing with time-based media works of art: acquisitions and loans. The acquisitions section outlines the units of information and processes needed to make informed decisions during pre-acquisition, accessioning and integration of the work into the collection. Includes templates for installation specifications, structure and condition reports, cost assessment and copyright agreement. The loans section assists with planning and research, negotiation and implementation of a loan transaction. Provides templates and process guidelines. Available in English only.

    Go to "Matters in Media Art: Guidelines for the care of media artworks"

  • Media Art and Museums: Guidelines and Case Studies

    Various international research groups have been formed to facilitate the acquisition and long-term management of media artworks. Based in Montreal, the DOCAM Research Alliance (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) is made up of researchers in cultural organizations and universities. In collaboration with the DOCAM Research Alliance, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has developed documentation and conservation methods adapted to media artworks in museums and identified the ethical issues associated with them.

    Go to "Media Art and Museums: Guidelines and Case Studies"

  • Methodological Report (Case Studies of the Cataloguing Structure Committee, DOCAM)

    This report is published by the DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) Alliance, as part of the Cataloguing Structure Committee. DOCAM is an international research alliance on the documentation and the conservation of the media arts heritage. The report summarizes work to develop new methodologies and tools for conservation and documentation of media art, based on three case studies of works at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal and the National Gallery of Canada. Through the three case studies, cataloguing practices and tools for media art are identified and recommendations are made for improvements to these practices and for the development of a new set of tools for documentation and preservation of media art. This study was the basis for the DOCAM Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections. Available in French and English.

    Go to "Methodological Report (Case Studies of the Cataloguing Structure Committee, DOCAM)" (PDF version, 67.9 KB)

Management and documentation of ethnological and archaeological collections

The following metadata standards are recommended for museums with ethnology or anthropology collections. They are similar to the standards for humanities collections (above), but with a narrower focus.

  • International Core Data Standard for Ethnology/Ethnography

    Prepared by the Ethnology Working Group of CIDOC, the CIDOC International core Data Standard for Ethnology/Ethnography provides data categories to assist museums with ethnological or anthropological collections. The standard aims to "facilitate communication between national and international bodies responsible for the recording and protection of the ethnological /ethnographical objects, to assist countries at an early stage in developing record systems for the recording and protection of the ethnographical objects and to facilitate ethnographical and ethnological research at an international level." Available in English only.

    Go to "International Core Data Standard for Ethnology/Ethnography" (PDF version, 422 KB)

  • International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Objects

    Created by the Archaeological Sites Working Group of CIDOC, this standard provides minimum categories of information to be recorded about archaeological objects. Includes fields for identification, institution, references, object name, title, iconography, description, material, technique, dimensions, form, archaeological context, author and cultural milieu, inscriptions and marks, date/epoch, acquisition and state of conservation. Currently available only in English.

    Go to "International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Objects"

  • La documentation des ensembles – Capsule documentaire no 6

    Developed by the Société des musées québécois (SMQ), this document offers guidelines for cataloguing objects with multiple parts. Available in French only.

    Go to "La documentation des ensembles - Capsule documentaire no 6"(PDF format)(58.6 KB)

  • Handbook of Standards: Documenting African Collections

    Published by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), these standards were developed to facilitate collections management, to identify and ensure security of objects and to facilitate information exchange. Available in French and English.

    Go to "Handbook of Standards: Documenting African Collections"

Management and documentation of archaeological sites/monuments

  • International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Sites and Monuments

    Created by the Archaeological Sites Working Group of CIDOC, working in collaboration with the archaeological and architectural working parties contributing to the Council of Europe's Cultural Heritage Committee. This standard "defines the minimum categories of information required to assess an archaeological site or monument, for planning, management, academic or other purposes." Available in English only.

    Go to "International Core Data Standard for Archaeological Sites and Monuments"

  • MIDAS Heritage: The UK Historic Environment Data Standard

    Developed by English Heritage on behalf of the Forum on Information Standards in Heritage (FISH), the updated and expanded version of MIDAS provides a framework data standard for recording all types of heritage assets, their management-related activities, map depiction (GIS) and information sources. MIDAS Heritage is heavily influenced by the CIDOC Draft International Core Standard for Archaeological Sites and Monuments and Spectrum. It includes checklists to assist inventory managers with decision-making, units of information to be recorded, along with definitions for each unit of information. It also includes indexing tools which provide advice on "finding or compiling wordlists or thesauri to use in indexing inventory entries." Available in English only.

    Go to "MIDAS Heritage: The UK Historic Environment Data Standard"

Description for object identification and security

  • Object ID: Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society

    Object ID is an international documentation standard for the information needed to identify cultural objects. It was "developed through the collaboration of the museum community, police and customs agencies, the art trade, insurance industry, and valuers of art and antiquities." The project, initiated by the Getty Information Institute, "helps to combat art theft by encouraging use of the standard and by bringing together organisations around the world that can encourage its implementation." Among other things, Object ID encourages museums to record information about "Inscriptions & Markings" and "Distinguishing Features" of items in their collection that would help to identify the item. Museums that are designing collections management systems or procedures should consult Object ID to ensure that they are recording information that can identify an object in case of theft. The Spectrum standard is compatible with Object ID. Also available in French, Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Persian, Russian and Spanish.

    Go to "Object ID: Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society"

Collection-level description

Some metadata standards have been developed for describing museum collections at a broad level (such as a general description of a museum's collection for inclusion in a directory of museums).

  • RSLP Standard for Collection-level description

    The Research Support Libraries Programme in the UK has developed a standard to enable consistent and machine-readable collection description. This standard is based on Dublin Core but has additional elements which enable more complete description of museum collections. In addition to the RSLP Collection Description Schema, the RSLP site also offers a Web-based collection description tool (which provides the metadata in RDF) and a set of data entry guidelines. This tool can be used to describe museum collections at a general level (not object-by-object). Available in English only.

    Go to "RSLP Standard for Collection-level description"

Resource discovery

Some metadata standards have been developed for general "resource discovery." They are designed to provide a metadata vocabulary of "core" properties able to provide basic descriptive information about any kind of resource, regardless of the format (electronic, paper, etc.) or area of specialization (museum, library, educational institution, publisher, etc.) The use of these general standards enables organizations to share or combine data that would otherwise be incompatible, in order to facilitate "resource discovery" at a general level.

  • Dublin Core

    The Dublin Core (DC) is the most widely used metadata standard for resource discovery. Dublin Core is intended to be simple to use and general enough to be applied to resources in any discipline. The Dublin Core defines the categories of information to record about a resource (such as a web page, a document or an image) in order for the resource to be easily discovered. It has been approved as an ANSI standard (Z39.85-2001), an ISO standard (15836) and has been adopted within the Canadian, Australian and UK governments among others. The Dublin Core Metadata Element Set consists of 15 elements, which include title, creator, subject, description, publisher, contributor, date, type, format, identifier, source, language, relation, coverage and rights. These 15 elements are designed for simple resource discovery. However, in some applications, it may be necessary to refine or qualify the meanings of the Dublin Core metadata. A model called the Qualified Dublin Core has been developed to refine the meanings of simple Dublin Core elements through the use of element qualifiers or encoding schemes. For example, the "DC.Date" element can be refined to "DC.Date.Created." Qualifiers can refine the meanings of Dublin Core elements, but not extend them. It is recognized that the Dublin Core will not cover the potential needs of all users and will not be sufficient for purposes other than simple resource discovery (for example, Dublin Core will not handle all of the information needed for museum collections management or documentation, rights management). However, it is intended that local implementations or communities of users (such as the museum community) will use Dublin Core as the "core" and develop their own extensions to meet their discipline-specific or local needs. In practice, this often happens the other way around: the museum will use a discipline-specific standard (such as the CHIN data dictionaries or Spectrum) in order to document and manage their collections and extract a subset of their collections records which map to the Dublin Core Elements. These Dublin Core records can then be used for purposes of data exchange and simple resource discovery. This is particularly important for sharing data across disciplines or in collaborative projects. Available in English and French.

    Go to "Dublin Core"

  • CDP Dublin Core Metadata Best Practices

    Created by the Collaborative Digitization Program at the University of Denver and supported by The Institute of Museum and Library Services, this document is intended to "provide guidelines for creating metadata records for digitized cultural heritage resources." It uses the Dublin Core element set but is specifically designed to meet the needs of cultural heritage institutions such as museums, libraries and archives. It provides explanation of terms and concepts in the cultural heritage context, and it provides examples cultural heritage institutions. Available in English only.

    Go to "CDP Dublin Core Metadata Best Practices" (PDF version, 502 KB)

Metadata standards for libraries and archives

Many museums have archival or library holdings as part of their collections. The following standards may be useful for multi-level description of these special collections (from fond level to individual items), as well as for data exchange.

  • Library and Archives Canada – Cataloguing and Metadata

    This document contains information regarding the cataloguing standards, practices and policies of Library and Archives Canada.

    Go to "Library and Archives Canada – Cataloguing and Metadata"

  • Rules for Archival Description (RAD)

    RAD is the Canadian standard for archival description. It provides a set of rules which "aim to provide a consistent and common foundation for the description of archival material within fonds, based on traditional archival principles." It contains information on the units of information to be recorded about archival collections, as well as rules for consistent cataloguing of all types of material, at multiple levels (fonds, series, files and item levels). Item level rules are based on AACRII. Maintained by the Canadian Committee on Archival Description of the Canadian Council of Archives. Available in English and French.

    Go to "Rules for Archival Description (RAD)"(PDF format)(2.2 MB)

  • Encoded Archival Description (EAD)

    EAD is a metadata schema for XML encoding of multi-level (fond, group series, and individual items) archival descriptions. EAD is widely used internationally. Available in English only.

    Go to "Encoded Archival Description (EAD)"

  • SEPIADES (SEPIA Data Element Set)

    SEPIADES provides a metadata schema for describing archival photographic collections. It is based on standards for archival description (following a multi-level approach). Available in English only.

    Go to "SEPIADES (SEPIA Data Element Set)"(PDF format)(1,326 KB)

  • Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR)

    FRBR is a conceptual model that relates the tasks undertaken by users of bibliographic records (retrieval and access) to the units of information required to support these functions. FRBR has been harmonized with the CIDOC CRM (Conceptual Reference Model) which deals with cultural heritage information; a harmonized model called FRBRoo (FRBR-Object-Oriented) is the result. This model has been translated into many languages, and these can be accessed on the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) website.

    Go to "Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR)"

Intellectual property rights metadata standards

As information technology is increasingly used to create, manage, use and deliver intellectual content, standards are needed to describe and facilitate these transactions. The following standards can support the management of intellectual property rights for digital content:

  • Creative Commons Rights Expression Language (ccREL)

    ccREL provides a framework for expressing rights information for open access web resources. The ccREL metadata record includes simple Dublin Core elements to describe the resource, and additional elements to describe the Creative Commons licence that is associated with it. Available in English only.

    Go to "Creative Commons Rights Expression Language (ccREL)"

  • Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

    Developed by the International DOI Foundation, the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) is a "system for identifying and exchanging intellectual property in the digital environment. It provides a framework for managing intellectual content, for linking customers with content suppliers, for facilitating electronic commerce, and enabling automated copyright management for all types of media." A DOI identifies an object (a particular piece of intellectual property), not the place where the object is located (for example, a URL). DOI is currently used primarily in the electronic publishing industry, but it can be used by rights holders (such as museums) regardless of the type of intellectual property. There is a fee for the DOI service. Available in English only.

    Go to "Digital Object Identifier (DOI)"

Alternative format

CHIN Guide to Museum Standards (PDF, 544 KB)

Contact information for this web page

This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on

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